Issue X, Volume IV : June 2013
Ben Tanzer interview with Meg Tuite
I loved this story, Mass. At first, I’m reading this exceptional inner dialogue of this magnificent OCD character. His every move must be methodical or the next move cannot happen.
“You make coffee. There can be no spilled grounds, grounds bring ants, ants bring pestilence and pestilence brings death. You drink your coffee, one cup, no milk, no sugar. If the coffee spills you start again. You make toast, one piece, butter, no jam, never jam, jam brings ants, ants bring pestilence and pestilence brings death.”
Then, as I’m reading on, I am sure that you have drawn an incredibly moving picture of a day in the life of Henry Darger. I saw the documentary on his life and was mesmerized by him. No question, the story of Henry’s life is inspirational, but how did you come to write this beautifully poetic and disturbing piece.
“You go to Mass. You absorb the words as they float across the pews, taking flight, changing shape, and color, nuanced and beautiful and bending in and around the light. You do not think about the asylum. You take this time to kill all thoughts of self-abuse, or pleasure. There can be no release of any kind until you are home again.”
First off, thank you for the invitation to submit a story, the kind words and your interest in doing an interview. And second, I had this story “I Am Richard Simmons” published by ML Press a couple of years ago and I initially thought it might be cool to try and write some similar pieces in that vein, first-person ruminations on obscure or somewhat inscrutable quasi-celebrities we think we know something about and how they cope with confusion, pain and their inability to wholly communicate what they struggle with. I didn’t pursue the idea because I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to capture the tone and vibe I had with that piece. More recently though I started thinking about this again and for a month or so just wrote down the names of people who I thought might fit what I was going for, including Henry Darger, who I have been alternately fascinated and repulsed by for years. I am also fascinated and repulsed by OCD and the crippling nature of it in the extreme is endlessly upsetting to me. The week you asked me to submit something, was also the week you interviewed Gregory Sherl, who simultaneously had an essay being run by the Good Men Project. I am a fan of his, and I find myself very absorbed with how he both writes and talks about himself whether in his work or on social media and the ways he copes with and is controlled by his battles with OCD. As I read about Gregory that week, the possibilities of Darger as a character became infinitely clearer to me, a man who is controlled by his OCD, but who also treats his OCD as a tool to protect and mold his creative vision. I didn’t want to romanticize this, nor do I frankly know anything really about Darger, but that’s part of my goal with these pieces. They’re my impressions and reactions to people we think we sort of know, but don’t, and can’t, and if they turn out poetic or beautiful, I’m thrilled, that’s really wonderful and humbling.
You hit the mark on this, without question, Ben. There is a deep sympathy and communion with this character. I would love to hear that you’re working on a collection of these interesting, provocative personalities. Darger does bring up both the light and the dark. I felt a deep sympathy for his plight and also an aversion to some of his obsessions. Are you thinking of something along these lines?
Thanks so much, and my idea is to work on a series of these types of pieces, though I suppose I tend to think of it as less light and dark, than as people I perceive to have some series of challenges and struggles, people who are damaged and confused, how they cope with these things, and that it’s in the coping, and the form it takes, that I think the potential for these conflicting, maybe even complimentary, nuances emerge. Which may be light and dark, but also pain and joy, and confusion and enlightenment and all of which may ultimately be the same thing. There is another element though that I’m drawn to in these types of characters, and that is a sort of grandiosity. These characters believe in their greatness and their ability to entertain or even change the world, and this is a trait that I also find really fascinating and engaging. Grandiosity is a type of coping mechanism as well, and while it’s not a trait or strategy I tend to focus on when I write novels or short stories, it is a vein I consciously try to tap, even exploit, for laughs, when I write humor pieces. When I wrote “I Am Richard Simmons” for example, there was a moment where I thought it could, should, be a humor piece, but I’ve always found him sort of tragic, so instead I decided to write it like it might be a humor piece and then strip away the blatant stabs at humor and jokiness. That approach, or that result anyway, now serves as the template for these new pieces, such as “Mass,” and some other ones I’m working on, including “Gunther Gebel (Redux),” which appeared earlier this winter at HOUSEFIRE. And yes, that’s a terribly blatant self-plug. It’s also shameless, and very unbecoming, and I apologize for that.
You are most welcome to plug any work you’ve published elsewhere. I love HOUSEFIRE, as well, and it fits in with what I was asking. Now I can check that story out. Thanks for that. Do you tend to work on more than one project at a time?
Yes, HOUSEFIRE rocks and has been very kind to me. And I appreciate the invitation to plug things published elsewhere, though please know that you may come to regret that. In fact, speaking of humor, which we were, right, I am thrilled to let you know that This American Life, a collection of humor pieces I’ve done and have appeared in various publications including decomP, Knee-Jerk, Curbside Splendor, Opium.net and THE2NDHAND has just been released by the quite stellar Achilles Chapbook Press. See what I did there? Cool, meanwhile, there was an actual question to answer and the answer to that question is that I am always working on more than one project at a time and I adopted this practice right from the start of my efforts to write. I always thought to become a writer I was going to need to write everyday no matter what, that I had to treat it like a craft, and not something that happened when the inspiration struck me, and so from the beginning I decided I would have to conceive of multiple projects just to have things to work on every day. In the early days I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant though, and story ideas were not endlessly swirling around in me head as they do now. One thing I did constantly was pitch ideas to magazines about pieces I might write for them. This mostly, and eventually, worked itself out, with some great magazines inviting me to work on stuff for them, including the now defunct Punk Planet and Clamor among others. It didn’t always work out though. There was one online magazine that was focused on stories about the local movie industry and when I submitted the spec piece they assigned me, the editor asked me if I had ever written before. After several additional drafts she asked me to leave her alone. I also ran into some problems with the editors of a local parent magazine that will remain nameless and our respective perceptions about what constituted an appropriate word count. But I did write all kinds of things all the time, and I still do, though now I have more ideas available to me, which means I get to scramble slightly less, sometimes, anyway.
There are always a few editors out there that just don’t get it, Ben! Sad, but true. I love your dedication to your craft and have read a few of your books and loved them! I’m so glad you let us know about This American Life. I am looking forward to reading this one. Do you want to share anymore about this new collection that just came out and, by the way, huge congratulations to you!
It could be the editors, but I’m guessing it was mostly me and my fucked-upedness, which I’m okay with, really, mostly. And which is also a segue of sorts into talking about This American Life. The pieces in This American Life as I briefly touched on earlier are blatant stabs at humor, while also being in the vein of themes I like to explore when I write. Characters that are confused by their surroundings and unclear about how they got where they are, not sure how to make sense of this confusion, possessing undeveloped coping skills and lacking the means to fully communicate any of it. The difference is that with these pieces, as compared to say the fiction pieces I write that may be humorous, but aren’t all about that, I really try to play-up the characters’ grandiosity on the one hand, the belief that somehow they just know better than everyone around them even if they don’t know anything, and a certain kind of obsessiveness on the other hand, and the need to be sure everyone knows they are righter, smarter and pretty awesome really if people around them would just take a moment to accept that. It is this latter quality that I am very self-conscious about in my own behavior, how I can be obsessive about knowing things, and believing that I’m right about them, and I really try to tamp it down because I’m embarrassed about it. In that way, some of these pieces in this collection are far more autobiographical then much of the fiction I write, which probably come off as more autobiographical than they are. I did once kind of stalk Ira Glass as portrayed in the story “Ira Glass Wants to Hit Me,” and as discussed in “The Penis Stories,” I was, and remain, fairly obsessed with my sons’ penis’ and whatever that represents to me in terms of masculinity and virility. One thing I would add, and please note, I am so about to plug something again, is that This American Life is a collection of pieces that hang together in various ways, but it wasn’t conceived as a collection. The pieces came to me when they did, and I write this, because other collections I’ve done, most recently my short story collection So Different Now for example, which came out from CCLaP Publishing this past December, or the series of stories that “Mass” is part of, were/are very consciously thought of as stories that are of a piece and trying to capture a sense of time, place and mood. I’m not sure what this means, but it did allow me to make that plug and it has gotten me thinking about what consciously writing a humor collection that hangs together might look like. Thank you for that, and just so you don’t think I overlooked it, thank you for the kind words above as well, much appreciated.
I know from GoodReads and your blog that you are always reading new work. Any writers out there that have really blown you away lately or through your writing career that continue to inspire you?
I have always been a terribly compulsive reader, but in some ways it has become more focused in recent years on trying to use that compulsion to serve a kind of greater good, hopefully exposing more people to more writers who are toiling to some extent without a lot of exposure. I do have a number of biases though as well, I favor Chicago writers; I’m very taken with parents who write, and work, and are trying to balance all of it, especially dads; writers we’ve published in our Zine or I’ve podcasted with; attractive people, embarrassing, but true; and writers I have worked on projects with or bathed with, gotten to know and have affection for. I’m also drawn to pain and humor, and especially drawn to realism. Experimental work and magical realism don’t move me, and I want to be moved, ideally being punched in the face by what’s on the page. With that, I will list way too many people who fit into these categories in one fashion or another, but will still leave people out, sorry people. All of that said, the writers I am especially likely to consume and seek out include, Scott McClanahan, Mel Bosworth, Mary Miller, Ryan W. Bradley, Lavinia Ludlow, Spencer Dew, Ken Wohlrob, Tom Williams, Greg Olear, Barry Graham, Lauryn Allison Lewis, Nik Korpon, Robert Duffer, Anna March, Matt Rowan, Michael Fitzgerald, James Goertel, xTx, Patrick Wensink, J.A. Tyler, Mark Brand, Jason Fisk, Steve Himmer, Nathan Holic, Dave Housley, David Tomaloff, Craig Renfroe, Hosho McCreesh, David Masciotra, William Walsh, Tim Hall, Victor Giron, Jamie Iredell, Brandon Will, Lindsay Hunter, Nick Ostdick, Caleb J. Ross, Pete Anderson and Gina Frangello. Also, if I were to focus purely on the word “inspire,” I would add, Joe Meno, Elizabeth Crane and Don De Grazia, a trio of Chicago writers who when I first moved out here and hoped to somehow become a writer, endlessly inspired me to pursue it once I got started. And then there’s Jim Carroll, who remains my truest inspiration, with my greatest desire to this day to somehow write a book that makes someone, anyone, feel like I did when I first read The Basketball Diaries, transformed, removed, crushed and exhilarated, all at once, and wanting more of that, all of it, and immediately.
An exceptional list! Thank you for that, Ben. And for sending Connotation Press one of your outstanding stories. How about if we end this sublime interview with a quote that you love and inspires you.